Praying as a Sermon

The following is a sermon that was preached at St. Luke the Physician in Gresham on September 3, 2017. It grew out of the essay entitled “Praying” published earlier on this site. http://silentsage.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/090317.mp3 Share this:Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to share on Google+ (Opens in new...

Praying

I was witness to what I believe was a true miracle more than two decades ago; it was undeniably the most formative event in my understanding of the nature of God. While providing all the details of the event requires more time and space than this forum provides (and wouldn’t necessarily convince the reader of the authenticity of my experience), I will suffice it to say that it involved the disappearance of a cardiac tumor in the hour between an echocardiogram (where the tumor was identified and confirmed) and the open heart procedure to remove it where it was determined that it was no longer present. My role in this event was little more than adjectival. I had urged the congregation I was serving at the time to hold the individual in question in prayer at the hour designated for surgery and was present with the family when the surgeon emerged from the operating theater shaken, incredulous and incapable of explaining what had happened. The following Sunday, when my congregation gathered for worship, I reported the results as I understood them, providing the only commentary I could, given my mental state of stupefaction. I said something like, “This was as much for you as for [the individual]. I believe that this is confirmation that God attends to your praying. If that is the case, then we have not just the opportunity to pray, but the obligation to pray.” The corporate result of these events was the establishment of a weekly early morning prayer group where intercession was offered for the sick and suffering. I moved on from that congregation more than a decade ago, and do not know if the prayer group continues. What I do know is that my own praying does and has grown in character and constancy since. I must confess, though, that it has not been enough to simply pray. I find that I need a way to think about that praying – my mind has to share some coherence with my heart and my behavior. I suppose that this is the most Anglican part of me; requiring all the components of our famous three legged stool which asserts that our believing must satisfy the tenets of Scripture, tradition and reason. What language can frame my thinking of an unanticipated but longed for interruption of the natural order? What does it mean to pray and to expect that God responds to human spiritual aspiration? There is no part of me that can accept the notion that God has the capacity to alter reality but, capriciously, accedes to some requests and denies others. This “vending machine” approach to praying (put in the correct or most earnest or worthiest request and get the desired result) offends every authentic assertion about the nature of God I know (What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg will give him a scorpion? Luke 11:11-12). No, praying must be more than asking and getting. The greatest obstacle to finding ways to speak of the true character of prayer is our understanding of the nature of God. The limitations of the human mind demand that we vest God with particularity – that is, that we reduce God to a boundaried entity in order that we might have congress with that God. Here, Gospel accounts can confuse: Matthew’s version of Jesus’ instruction in prayer binds us in a way that Luke’s does not. Matthew has: Pray then like this: Our Father who art in heaven…” (Matthew 6:9), confining God to a particular place, either physical or spiritual, while Luke has simply, When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be thy name (Luke 11:2), defining God by relationship rather than locality. Of course, both authors were temporally distant from Jesus’ actual teaching but nonetheless transmit the likely praying tradition of the fledgling Christian community in their reportage. I find Luke’s version more helpful, resonating as it does with Jesus’ assertion that God is to us like Abba, the Aramaic word a child would cry out in the night after a bad dream; literally, “Daddy.” Despite emotional baggage the word may carry due to the frequent failing of human fathers, the word suggests a directional relationship characterized by benevolent care. But what can we say about this God that cares? Is the word “caring” too human, too confined to our experience, to ascribe to the Divine? If God is, like the title of theologian Nels F.S. Ferre’s book, The Living God of Nowhere and Nothing, if Tillich is correct in saying that the...

Carter Did But I Can’t And You Can’t, Either

Charles Carter was a famous magician during the early part of the 20th Century whose third act during a spectacular stage show features a duel with an assistant dressed as Satan. Titled “Carter Beats the Devil,” the act featured a series of near miraculous escapes from seemingly impossible constraints – a popular theme in stage magic embraced by other well known magicians of the era: Harry Houdini, Harry Kellar, Howard Thurston, Harry Blackstone Sr., and Alexander Herrmann among others. At the end of the act, Carter in fact beats the Devil in the great conjuring contest to the delight of the thoroughly mesmerized audience. Carter’s fictionalized biography, Carter Beats the Devil, by Glen David Gold was a fun, if highly romanticized, read that led me to learn more about Carter and his contemporaries. Would that beating the Devil was as simple as a little conjuring. It seems to me that the Devil sure has been busy of late. Between terror attacks throughout the world, the emboldening of hate groups throughout the US, the aggression of ISIS and Taliban forces, the threats of angry nations resenting their material and political impoverishment and the growing divisions between people both within and among many nations, we feel shadowed by an almost continual sense of destructivity. Nation against nation, parent against child, brother against brother all of whom have newly developed nuclear weapons or bomb making skills or simply a driver’s license. It’s hardly a wonder that so many people fear that we are in end times. I suspect we are. We are certainly at the end of a time where the darkest forces of the human heart remain submerged beneath the level of widespread consciousness. We are at the end of a time when we can assume that safety and security on our streets and in our homes is a given. We seem to be at the end of a time when political leaders are capable of evoking our highest and best ideals and behaviors, pandering instead to our fears and prejudices. Foolishly, those same leaders, neophytes at “together” but experts at “against,” elect to wield authority through the dispatch of weapon and warrior, convinced that they are capable of eliminating agents of hatred. Blood is shed, homes and cities destroyed, enemies emboldened and the Devil wins again. Of course, I am no more interested in anthropomorphizing evil than I am in making God in our own image. I remember fondly an extraordinary insight in Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s book Good Omens. An angel and a demon, longtime adversaries and acquaintances are comparing notes. The angel compliments the demon on the very effective job he and his cohort have done in wreaking havoc among humankind. The demon, in response, says something like, “Actually, we haven’t really done that much. What humans do to themselves is far worse than anything we could have come up with.” In an earlier essay (www.silentsage.com/essential-christianity) I stated that I was convinced of the presence of “some reality shaped by non-being [that] continually calls us away from embracing our full humanity,” the only way I can think of the pervasive and tenacious capacity for self-destruction that characterizes human behavior. Interestingly enough, it seems to be a reality peculiar to hominids – one that leaves those lower on the evolutionary ladder untouched. Certainly, animals do not sin (as good a word as any even though it carries some religious baggage with it). While the dogs and cats I have shared my home with may have acted in a way that displeases me, they never acted against their own instinct. I suspect the same thing is true about frogs and newts and blue jays. Archaeological discoveries of bashed skulls and marks of violence on bones seem to indicate that the emergence of violence for violence’s sake arrived with homo sapiens and our evolutionary predecessors. And the President and his generals think that employing violence against the violent will eliminate violence? I doubt it. I think that one lesson we have yet to learn is that the Devil (whatever force or characteristic that might be) lives among us, in us, and acts through us. It can be recognized, it can be resisted, it can be denounced, but nothing we can do will beat it out of us. Pogo and St. Paul both saw it clearly. We have met the enemy and they is us, Pogo said. Describing real personal anguish at his wrestling with the enemy within, Paul said: I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what...

Essential Christianity

The Gospel reading for this Sunday, the tenth after Pentecost (Proper 14), presents this preacher with a choice: either yield to the attractions of piety thereby feeding the spiritual longing of the Biblically and theologically undereducated or challenge a congregation in a way that, while it may not be alarming to some, will no doubt be deeply discomfiting to others. The pericope is a familiar one even to Sunday School dropouts – Matthew’s account on Jesus walking on the water: Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” Preachers have struggled throughout the post-critical era to reconcile the essential character of kerygma as a dramatically enhanced form of proclamation shaped to indicate a truth greater than the story it tells and the reality of Divinely ordered natural law in order to present believers with a credible way of asserting Jesus’ lordship over nature while honoring contemporary scientific sensibilities. They haven’t always been successful, focusing on metaphorical comparisons that are readily translatable into modern spiritual practice – Peter was fine until he took his eyes off Jesus, humans were never intended to be water-walkers but with God all things are possible, etc. I find that such attempts do not serve the Faith well in that they tend to maintain a gap between the essential elements of Christian living and the requirements of contemporary credulity. So, I need to say that nothing that I believe and nothing that I do depends in any way on the historicity of this passage. In fact, I think it is fair to say that I maintain a lively and vibrant commitment to Christian thought and practice that in no way depends on Jesus’ ability to walk on the surface of water. I am not saying it didn’t happen – for all I know, it could be an accurate eyewitness account of actual events (although nothing in my study of New Testament thought would lead me to believe that’s true). I can certainly concede that the possibility exists that the Jesus of history was a water-walker, however, I insist that such a possibility in no way enhances or informs my faith. In my understanding of Christianity, it simply doesn’t matter. I must confess that there are other elements of the Gospel accounts that don’t matter to me, either. The biological virginity of Mary in no way affects my believing, nor does the idea of Divine insemination of a human. While such stories were common in the first century world (Zeus, after all, was well known for his interspecies indiscretions as were other gods in the ancient world) I find that while they may offer seasonal charm and enhance the piety of some, they simply place the integrity of Christian believing outside the realm of contemporary intellectual tolerance. Yes, some would argue that the requirement of faith is the acceptance of those assertions that we can neither understand nor verify, but I would argue that there is abundant material in the Gospel accounts that, as it may not be currently verifiable, requires a not insignificant leap, especially if one is considering wagering a life on the embrace of a spiritual discipline. As an example, the miraculous multiplication of foodstuffs is not an essential element of my believing, but the healing of sick, the blind and the lame is. Science has demonstrated over and over again that humans are generators of energy,...

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Ours is an age of images. While earlier times have been shaped by the power of the word, both spoken and printed, our time has been dominated by the picture. They appear on large screens and small, center front in papers or full page in magazines, memorialized in frames, carried in pockets on phones and tablets. They have emerged as a primary vehicle for communication, speaking volumes without words on Instagram and Facebook and their doppelgängers. Most of the images we consume are relatively banal – people with people, people in front of places, people all alone, animals acting like people, animals acting like animals, people acting like animals, places without people. Now that the preservation of images is freed from the complex process and expense of loading, processing and printing film, we have all become documentarians of lives both notable and unremarkable. Like those compelled to tag monuments, buildings and tunnels with graffiti (from the ancient Greeks who scrawled on the Pyramids of Cheops to modern day Kilroys), our imagery have become manipulated collections of ones and zeros that assert our presence on planet earth; a modern day shout to oblivion that, like the residents of Whoville, demands to be heard – “We are here, we are here, we are HERE!” A few of these images receive such widespread dissemination that they become memes – a relatively new word indicating an image or piece of text that has become so commonplace through sharing that it is widely recognizable. Fewer still become icons: frozen moments that so powerfully demonstrate something ominous or chillingly reflective that they take on a life of their own, seared into the minds of millions. These are the images that are our most profoundly disturbing mirrors: ones that reveal to us, like portrait of Mr. Gray through the passage of time, what we are in danger of becoming or have already become. True enough, images of the lovely and pastoral abound, but these are not the ones that haunt, that linger in troubled memory, that emerge in the dark of the night to warn or spur sober reflection on our actions and beliefs. These images are so powerful that they have changed us, spurred us to re-plot our course, move ahead in a different way. I suspect that many of the images that have established permanent residence in my mind are familiar to many and that they evoke a similar if not identical emotional response to my own. Oh, the humanity. Yes, the Goodyear blimp is still up there, but dirigibles as a method of travel? Maybe we ought to rethink that. Are we really capable of such evil? And even if we wouldn’t do it ourselves, can we possibly tolerate it in others? How could we have continued this exercise of cruelty toward others after we sacrificed so much to stop it in others? Does she really pose that much of a threat? Must the insanely evil among us always shape the lives of those in society? Still not healthy for children and other living things. Thankfully, she is alive and well today and running a charity for those displaced by war. “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke There must be forces, unseen and unrecognizable, that work ceaselessly for the elimination of progress. All dreams, all aspirations have a cost. At times the cost is incalculable. Damn you, child. Damn you. “We have met the enemy, and they is us.” Pogo Of course, there are dozens more images that I carry with me – dour mothers and hungry children caught in the Depression’s merciless wake, scrounging for simple existence while coal barons and oil magnates dine off fine china. Americans being beaten with truncheons and clubs because they dared to ask that their full humanity be affirmed. Young black men dangling from misshapen trees, victims of cruel and unbounded ignorance and recidivism. Homeless men and women huddled in doorways while Black Friday shoppers shove through Walmart doors. These images and so many like them have power for us because they demand that we look closely at ourselves and ask if we are becoming who we actually want to be or whether we have taken a wrong turn somewhere. Like the Magic Mirror in Snow White, we come arrogantly to our reflection and ask only for confirmation of that which we have come to believe – that we’re just fine the way we are, no modification necessary. Herein, I believe, lies the gift of Donald Trump. His accession to the highest office in the land, whether by the honest...

Labora in Pacem

I had a chance to reflect on our ideas of Heaven when I attended a funeral for another member of the clergy recently. Usually, I perform funerals rather than attend them, so I don’t often get to listen in silence. I’ve performed countless funerals over the years and, truth be told, I enjoy them; not like Jackie Gleason’s Gigot who went to funerals on his day off so he would have someone to cry with, but because funerals are one of the few pastoral functions where clergy are really needed. Weddings no longer require the presence of clergy (and even if you perform them, you’re only there as a functionary which is why you’re invariably seated with Aunt Bertha and Uncle Heck from Cleveland at the reception). Any Christian can baptize any other person, and licensed lay folk can distribute the Eucharist to the shut in. But at a funeral, people really need what you have to offer. I was struck at the service by the petitions present in the Prayer Book’s Order for the Burial of the Dead: Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints                 Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace                 May the souls of all the departed rest in peace Hmmm. I must make a confession here. If there is a continuation of our consciousness after the grave (and I live in hope that there is), and if that consciousness is at all congruent with the nature and character of our earthly personality (and I believe it must be as the sanctity of our individuality is a keystone of the Gospel message), then I’m afraid that if the afterlife is comprised primarily of rest, I will be bored to tears. I’ve never been much for resting. I can’t abide lying abed in the mornings, and should I be tempted to sit quietly and enter into mental or physical inactivity, the temptation passes quickly as something productive I could be doing comes to mind. I have always been a worker, and I find that my most enjoyable experiences of diversion come not from a cessation of function, but rather shifting focus to another form of production or creativity. My brother in law has a favorite saying: “I’ll rest when I die.” I hope I don’t. Frankly, I’m praying that there will be work for me to do in Heaven. What does that Heaven look like? Frankly, I don’t know (but I’m dying to find out!). Even our best imaginings come short of what it might be, and while I’m not a great fan of cherry-picking Bible verses to shore up my arguments and assertions (preferring to see the sweep of Scripture), there are some phrases that I carry like treasured pocket possessions that bring me comfort and hope. A follower of the Beloved Disciple, speaking with his master’s voice and in the spirit of his master’s heart provides an assurance born from years of prayerful insight into the Heart of God: Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.  (I John 3:2) I take great pleasure in that verse, knowing that as we draw closer to him, unfettered by the restrictions of flesh and earthly limitation, we begin to mirror the Lord of Life more clearly. But that isn’t just a statement about our yet-to-be-experienced nature; it is also a promise of our intention, our function. For it is the Lord of Life that holds us in his heart and hand daily, inextricably tied to the humanity he came to save. St. Paul, in his magnificent Epistle to the Romans, promises: It is Christ who died, yes rather, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God and makes intercession for us.  (Romans 8:34) The unknown author of the Epistle to the Hebrews holds out a clear vision for me as I look for work in Heaven: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us. (Hebrews 12:1) I hold so many in my heart in love already – family, friends, members of other communities I have served. As I have said before, I move through my relationships with them in the same way a king runs his fingers through his jewels. They are my...

Highway 61

Highway 61 was where Robert Johnson reportedly sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his exceptional ability to play guitar. With respect to Mr. Dylan, a slightly different take: Click here! Share this:Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to share on Google+ (Opens in new...